No, nationalism essential to bringing countries together
Think nationalism, and images of the tiki-torch-lit “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville last month may rightly come to mind. You might imagine a mass of brainwashed citizens praising an iron-fisted dictator wearing a peaked cap.
It is the bogeyman of political discourse, seen by officeholders as a useless, primitive and even dangerous relic from bygone times.
Political scientists blame it for wars, hate crimes and unimaginable atrocities, from the Holocaust to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Economists blame it for famines, festering corruption in developing nations and impeding economic growth.
And, to some degree, they are all correct—these are the gross, disastrous results of nationalism. These are the worst of nationalism.
But what are the benefits of nationalism? When we hastily glaze over a philosophical, sociological and political discussion concerning self-determination, national identity and the basis for governmental structures, what do we miss? A lot.
We overlook that pure nationalism, clear of racist, xenophobic ideologies, possesses a innocuous sentiment: a sense of belonging and unity that can bridge the gap between large, diverse groups. This, in itself, says nothing about how one nation should treat another.
When we boil down nationalism as inherently bad, we also gloss over the fact that it is a natural and necessary prerequisite of government, and that all societies, governments and international institutions, including the United Nations, draw from nationalism to promote stability and unity and to assert values.
Before a people can form a country or government, there must be a people. To form a people, peoples must form a shared identity based on religion, language, culture, values or a mixture of all.
To then form a government, a group of must grant some allegiance or consent to a government, which is, in itself, a degree of nationalism.
While we can use nationalism to explain dreadful, destabilizing errors in human history, we can also use it to explain instances where nationalism pulled states together. And we don’t have to look far to find this.
Before the Civil War, many Americans associated themselves not with America, but with the state they lived in. Virginians were Virginians before they were Americans. After the Civil War, an American identity formed.
The war even unified the nation’s name. In Antebellum, the country’s name was plural: “These United States.” In the decade after the war, people began to refer to it in the singular as we do today: “The United States.”
Yes, there are violent, ugly sides to nationalism, just as there are beneficial sides. In essence, it is a tool that societies and governments may use to attain their ends. But citizens can choose whether to unify around the racist, xenophobic ends we witnessed at Charlotteville, or around something larger.
Instead of pledging allegiance to ends based on shutting out and beggaring thy neighbor, let us use the benefits of nationalism to assert a non-xenophobic form of nationalism compatible with progressive values of freedom, tolerance, equality and individual rights.